Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Deficiencies in the Criminal Justice System

I was getting my haircut today and the barber, who's a rather talkative guy despite my usually reserved nature in these sorts of interactions, told me something that shocked even me. His 19 year old son, William Somtoa, whom he talks about time and time again whenever I get my haircut, apparently died as a result of a drinking and driving accident, where he was sober and the other person was drunk and hit him.

I was very nonchalant in my reaction for I don't typically have much to say regarding these sorts of things. I mean, what do you say other than a short "oh, I'm sorry to hear that. :/"? However, despite what one might think of my reaction, it did hit me fairly deeply despite my not knowing him. As a result, I felt compelled to do a search on the accident that led to his death and Google his name based on the information my barber gave me. When I read things like his Facebook (of which I found that we have five friends in common - one of which is my cousin Carina, which makes sense as he also went to Mt. Rainier High School) and saw all the goodbye comments left for him on his wall, he somehow "came to life" to me, as if now all of the sudden I realized that he was indeed a real person instead of just another name. Thus I felt prompted to center this blog around his death and the injustice that I believe is currently taking place. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, below is an article that gets at it:

While this is more on the man who killed him, James Jabari, it does give vague details about what occurred. However, I don't think that this does justice to what happened to William, so I feel compelled to write about it in my own words. From the information I've obtained from this article, other articles, my barber, and comments that I've read, I'll give a description of what occurred with some details of what was going on which most news articles fail to give.

The Friday night of January 2nd, 2009 was like any other. William Somtoa wished to go out with his friends. For a 19 year old, this is a typical enough thing and William's father was fine with it. Also as is typical for a group of young males looking for some fun, they all headed to Rick's Strip Club in Lake City, a neighborhood in Seattle, around midnight. They left there at about 2 am.

As William got into his friend's silver Subaru Impreza WRX (his other friends having a yellow Subaru Impreza WRX - William and his friends were big on Subaru Imprezas, and William was planning on buying one of his own as soon as he had enough money), his friend called shotgun (which, for those of you who do not know, is a game many young males play where the first person who shouts "shotgun!" gets to ride in the front passenger seat). As such, William settled to sitting in the backseat.

At about 2:09 am, the yellow Subaru came to a red light at the intersection at NE 95th St. and Lake City Way, with the silver Subaru that William was in behind them, and stopped. James Jabari, who was driving a BMW with a blood alcohol content of 0.23, was driving down Lake City Way at an estimated 70 miles per hour. Before any of them could figure out what was coming, the BMW swerved right to miss the car it was originally headed towards only to smash straight into the rear end of silver Subaru that William was in, which pushed its way into the yellow Subaru as a result.

Witnesses said that unlike in most crash scenes where you typically hear a screech of the brakes and then a crash, there were no screeches in this one. It was all crash. Jabari clearly not did not brake before hitting the back of the silver Subaru, which is typical of DUI accidents. Jabari's passenger flew out the front windshield while Jabari himself crawled out of the BMW after the wreck. Those in the silver Subaru, however, were in a much worse state than Jabari. All were knocked out cold with William, having been in the passenger seat, having the gravest injuries of them all. The pictures below show the accident scene that night:

The passenger of the BMW, the driver of the silver Subaru, and William himself were declared to be in critical condition and were rushed to Harborview. The only one who had life threatening conditions, however, were William and that next day he was declared dead. The other two recovered swiftly enough. The passenger in the front seat of the car William was in was declared to only have minor injuries.

Jabari had neither a license (it was revoked) nor auto insurance. The car he was driving wasn't even his. Jabari was arrested at the scene and bailed out for $200 the next day. Later when Jabari would appear in court for a hearing, he would plead not guilty to the charge of vehicular homicide. The outcome of the trial has yet to be decided, though it is expected that Jabari will be receiving a few years in jail. The bail set at this hearing was $75,000, of which Jabari will have collected and be coming out this Thursday.

So you see what wound up happening. It truly is sad for all involved. The saddest thing I heard was that for a little while after William's death, my barber would continue to go to William's room each morning to wake him up, as his routine is, but only half way through would realize that his son would not be there. As one can imagine, my barber's feelings were something in between sad, angry, and helpless. He told me about how his wife said to him that the punishment Jabari will receive will most certainly not be enough and that he should go "get him" himself. However, given that that's not exactly the sort of thing my barber would do, as much as he might wish to, he declined and said that all he can do is let the law handle this. However, how has the law handled this thus far?

James Jabari is about my age - 21 years old. Yet since 2005, he has received a total of 16 convictions. Five of which are related to driving with a suspended license, more than one of which dealing with drinking and driving (which got his license revoked), one for a hit and run, and one currently under investigation for burglary. His other convictions deal with having failed to appear in court (which surprises me that Jabari would receive a bail at all). Moreover, Jabari had also received numerous reckless driving citations.

With these prior convictions, you can be sure that Jabari will likely receive a sentence longer than a one-time offender, but I cannot imagine it'll be long enough. Five years maybe? Personally, I think the convictions given to those charged with DUIs, especially if those DUIs result in an accident, or worse, death, should be much more harsh, or at least harsh enough so that they're given a long enough sentence to create a rift between those convicted and their friends so that upon release and thereafter, they generally will not be in a situation to party and get drunk (irresponsibly at least - usually after awhile, those they'd party with either wouldn't party so much and/or irresponsibly), and if they do in the future, they'll be more prone to avoid driving. Looking at the number of those convicted of vehicular assault where they wound up killing somebody when they were drinking and driving where they got off with jailtime of only a few years, I think it's absolutely ridiculous. Now, don't get me wrong as I'm not usually the one to advocate for a more harsh sentence for most crimes, and tend to advocate the focusing more on rehabilitation rather than punishment or as a deterrent. However, those who repeatedly drink and drive and show that the revoking of their license doesn't stop them from doing so are a danger to all of society, especially when they kill somebody as was the case of William's.

Of course, Jabari is as much of a person as William was, and thus we must keep in mind that he does have family and friends who care about him. And let us not forget that killing another individual may have awakened Jabari to his actions he has done time and time again in the past. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system cannot take an individual in question's word for their expressed remorse, for anyone can feign a sign of sincere remorse for their actions. Jabari had to have known the potential consequences for his actions, even if they did not immediately register with him, and thus he must be given the "benefit" of the doubt now. Personally, given his record and my general experience with those who have the same sort of record that Jahari has, I am very skeptical of his remorse. Remorse is about far more than just saying I'm sorry and if he's going to convince anyone of it, it is up to him to prove it.

But at the same time, we must understand that the criminal justice system operates on the good of society, not the good of the individual and his or her family and friends, and moreover it has a very hard time taking the person in question's word for their remorse for anyone can feign the sign of sincere remorse given the practice. One life taken is already too many and personally, given the dangers drinking and driving poses, I think the jail sentences for drinking and driving should be given a marked increase. Perhaps not necessarily on the first offense, but repeated offenses most certainly should be. While I'm generally against the whole three strikes idea towards criminal justice, I think it's far more appropriate to apply it here and anywhere where the actions by those convicted individuals poses a danger to others.

Unfortunately, Washington state law isn't very harsh on those convicted of DUI offenses. It seems as if the criminal justice system is more focused on punishing those who have drugs, have failed to pay their child support payments (which ironically makes it so that they cannot pay further ones, much to the detriment of the child in question anyway), and others which are not directly related to our society's safety, justice, and betterment. But those who have shown themselves to be a threat to society, however, can in some cases get off easy, and such benefits of the doubt have wound up in many others' deaths which could have been avoided, William's included. Thanks to all this, I'm sure that in a couple more years, we'll be seeing James Jabari back on the road in the streets of Seattle late at night, whether his license is still revoked or not. Such are the deficiencies of our criminal justice system. One can only hope that Jabari is truly sincere in his remorse and does not kill another person in the future.


Jen said...

What a horrible crash. I feel so bad for his parents.

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